Updated: Nov 21, 2021
Deena Kastor once said “There’s no such thing as overtraining, just under-recovery”. I think there is some truth to this, and while I would argue that there absolutely is such a thing as overtraining, recovery really is the key to both improving performance and avoiding injuries. For the record though, I would never argue with Queen Deena.
Very generally speaking, injuries occur when the process of tissue breakdown (training, stress, etc.) exceeds that of repair (recovery, rest, etc.). Thus, it is intuitive that one’s ability to recover from training and both physical and mental stress determines injury risk. An analogy I like to use to explain this is that of an “Running Injury Risk Bank”. Some of us have more money in there than others, depending upon genetic factors and situational fortune/misfortune. We make withdrawals by training hard, pushing ourselves, working, parenting, etc., and engaging in any activity or behavior that may increase bodily stress. We make deposits by sleeping, fueling/hydrating, resting, and taking care of ourselves, as well as improving our strength, efficiency, and biomechanics. The more “money” we have, the more we can withdraw without noticing it. This applies to the elites among us, who can stack 100+ mile weeks on each other and stay injury-free.
So for those of us in the “middle class” of injury risk, how can we maximize our training to reach our potential, while staying injury-free? The answer is to know how to best support our bodies in recovery, and listen to signals that may indicate poor recovery.
It is imperative to cover the “basics” of recovery first before looking into ancillary modes of recovery. From a physiological perspective, sleep and nutrition have the biggest impact on recovery because they are directly and largely responsible for the remodeling process that occurs after the body has been stressed. Optimizing those two things will give you the most bang for your injury risk buck. If we prioritize and rank aspects of recovery in order of impact and importance, it would look something like this:
-Ancillary modes of recovery: compression boots, cryotherapy, sauna, etc
Recovery begins right after you stop your watch (and it presumably uploads to Strava). It’s important to replace any fluid loss and to eat a combination of carbs and protein ~30 minutes after. If you don’t have time for a full meal (or your stomach just isn’t having it), a solid snack is fine until you are able to completely fill the tank 1-2 hours after your workout. If you’re able to spend 5-10 minutes foam rolling the major muscle groups: quads, glutes, calves, hamstrings, etc, this can help push out any waste products formed with exercise and boost recovery as well. I strongly advocate for this after longer or harder efforts, such as speed workouts, tempo runs, and the long run.
Gentle movement, such as a walk or easy bike ride, later in the day can also help boost recovery. As good as it feels to lay on the couch after a long run, being completely sedentary isn’t the best for recovery and the blood flow that comes with movement can help you feel ready for the next training session.
Finally, how do you know if your body isn’t recovering well? This is something that can take some time and experience in the sport to fully grasp. A well-structured, individualized, training program can minimize the risk of overtraining/under-recovery, however there are always other factors at play. Increased life stress, poor sleep, and other health factors can derail even the best of training plans. Paying attention to how you feel both during workouts and throughout the day, and adjusting as needed, will help keep you out of the red. Heavy legs, increased exercise heart rate, and poor endurance can all be yellow flags and an indication that you aren’t bouncing back from training stressors. If you have several “bad” runs in a row, where you don’t feel great, it might be an indication that you need to take training progression more slowly. Increased effort level at “slower” paces is also something to pay attention to.
The symptoms of overtraining are system-wide, and can include:
-Brain fog, cognitive impairment
-Poor sleep quality: waking up frequently, having difficulty going to sleep/waking up
-Irritability, worsening mental health
-Persistent muscle soreness
-Decreased training pleasure
-Decrease in heart rate variability
There are some fantastic devices and activity trackers that can help quantify and identify overtraining and other health issues before you even have symptoms. Two popular options are the Whoop band and Oura Ring:
These measure heart rate variability (more about HRV in a future blog), body temperature, and heart rate throughout the day and night to determine your physiological state day by day. Technology and data are a great option to increase the accuracy and objectivity of training effect, and us Type-A endurance athletes gravitate toward such precision. It’s important to remember that these are just tools, and your body will tell you what it needs. It may whisper at first, but you need to listen to the whispers before it screams and you’re sidelined with an injury.
Recovery is where the magic of training happens. Be sure to focus on it just as much as the training itself!
Keep going, you got this!
Dr. Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT